The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declared that Americans have a constitutional right to keep a gun in their homes for self-defense, a landmark decision ending D.C.’s long-standing handgun ban in favor of an individual’s right to bear arms.
The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, offers the first decree from the high court on the meaning of the Second Amendment — that the constitutional right to own a gun is conferred to the individual and not to a self-regulated militia. The ruling is likely to spur challenges of gun control laws nationwide.
Scalia held that the 32-year-old D.C. handgun ban is an unreasonable limit on what the American people consider to be "the quintessential self-defense weapon." Also unconstitutional, Scalia wrote, is a requirement that licensed rifles and shotguns are either trigger-locked or disassembled, rendering them virtually useless.
"Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid," Scalia wrote.
Mayor Adrian Fenty called the decision in D.C. v. Heller "unfortunate" and warned that more guns in homes would lead to more guns in the hands of criminals. He nevertheless directed the Metropolitan Police Department to issue new regulations within 21 days for an "orderly system of registering handguns in their homes."
The existing ban will remain in place for at least the next three weeks.
"We wish the ruling had gone the other way," Fenty said from the steps of the John A. Wilson Building.
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray pledged to implement the "most restrictive firearm regulations that the Constitution permits."
The weight of the court’s decision cannot be overstated, observers said. Clarifying for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms is "tremendously important," said Robert Cottrol, law professor at George Washington University.
"That doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that every gun law is going to fall," Cottrol said. "But it does place a very real limitation on government regulation."
Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined to oppose the decision, arguing that the issue of gun possession should remain with policymakers. In his dissent, Breyer questioned "how one can take from the elected branches of government the right to decide whether to insist upon a handgun-free urban populace in a city now facing a serious crime problem. …"
There have been 85 homicides in the District this year, one fewer than at the same time in 2007.
Dick Heller, a special police officer, first sued the District in 2003 after being denied a license to keep a gun in his home.